Mystical Studies: William James Psychology


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William James was an American philosopher and psychologist during the 19th century. As the son of Swedenborgian theologian Henry James Sr., much of William James’s early years had an atmosphere of intellect and spiritual life. As a young adult, he suffered several ailments, physical as well as psychological. He wrote several influential books like The Principles of Psychology (1890), Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

James started writing his psychology textbook, The Principles of Psychology in 1878. Through this textbook he talked about philosophical ideas like the stream of thought, the consciousness of self, emotion, will, and several other topics.

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James later shifted his focus to philosophy and religion. His studies, which were now based more on observation than on logic, were concerned with the nature and existence of God, the soul, life after death, free will, and determinism. His book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, as a summary, claimed that the rich variety of religious experiences that people everywhere encounter proves the existence of conscious energy to whom we can reach out in tough situations.

William James defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand about whatever they may consider the divine.” He claims that religion does not necessarily mean having faith in a deity or a God and is not limited to society’s idea of religion. He gives three conclusions in his book ̶ one, our world is a part of a greater spiritual universe and derives its significance from it; two, to be united and to have a balanced relation with that spiritual universe is our purpose; and three, prayer and communion with the spirit, “be it a God or law”, is a process where “spiritual energies produce effects” in the physical world.

James believed that there is more to the real world than just its physical aspects and that there is an unseen and incomprehensible world that affects our realities. He claims to be a supernaturalist instead of a materialist and did not readily accept popular Christianity. He rejected the idea that there is only one God or even that there are many Gods. In his book, “The Dilemma of Determinism” James describes his perception of God as omniscient and omnipotent energy. Later, in his essay “Reflex Action and Theism”, he accepts the atheistic belief of God with whom one may maintain relations, and who possesses great power but is not necessarily omnipotent or omniscient. In another source, he describes God as having only a finite amount of knowledge and power.

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, published in June 1902, was an immediate bestseller. Reflecting the diversified views, it states that individual, not organized, religious experiences form the basis of religious life.

William James contends that personal religious experience is rooted in mystical states of consciousness and says that the two are synonymous. To dispel misconceptions about mysticism, he provides four marks by which an experience may be called as such:

Ineffability: This feeling or state defies expression. Solely words cannot fully describe it.

Noetic quality: These states are states of knowledge that provide an insight into the truths unavailable to the discursive mind. Such knowledge remains even after the mystic state has passed.

Transiency: These states are, in most cases, brief. Although they are hard to remember in detail, they are recognized when they recur.

Passivity: While such states may be coaxed through certain practices, the mystic’s will is shut out once the mystic state arises.

He states that people often use the words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystical’ as terms of mere reproach, used to explain any opinion regarded as vague and vast, without a base in either facts or logic. According to him, some writers are of the thinking that a ‘mystic’ is any person who believes in thought-transference or spirit-return. His summation of the marks of religious experience clearly separates mystical experiences from such New Age phenomena.

James’ discusses mystical experiences, from the fleeting whispers that arrive inadvertently to full-blown mystical states. He admits to having no experience of naturally occurring mystical states but of having conducted his own experiments with nitrous oxide. His experience forced him to conclude that normal waking consciousness is only one of the many forms of consciousness available.

From James’s point of view as well as others who followed him, mystical states occur in the brain, and the fact that they are induced by outside agents doesn’t alter the quality of the experience. For those who believe God is an external entity, mystical experiences induced by chloroform or by psychedelic drugs—are a counterfeit of the real thing. Health-care practitioners have begun experimentally treating cancer patients with a drug that appears to alleviate depression and anxiety in people with life-threatening illnesses by inducing mystical experiences. However, James notes that mysticism derived from drug experiences is misguided and dangerous because humans can always interpret their experiences through religion.

James also talks about Dr. Bucke, and his explanation of cosmic consciousness and mystical experiences. Cosmic consciousness has been described by Dr.Bucke as ‘intellectual enlightenment’ which puts a person on a new plane of existence and makes them ‘almost a member of a new species.’ Such a person experiences moral elation, gaining a sense of elevation and joyousness. Such a person also experiences “a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.’

An important aspect of mysticism, spoken by James, is how it differs from the external religious practice of orthodox institutions. While the final goal of the orthodox practice of religion is to unite with God in the hereafter, the mystical practice looks to unite with God in the here and now, along with the experience of immortality in the here and.

James discusses the mystical states found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. He is intent on proving that all the varieties of religious experience end up having universal qualities. Ultimately he maintains that mystic experience ‘is on the whole pantheistic and optimistic,’ regardless of a particular religion.

He concludes that mystic states are states that, when well developed, are completely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come, that they have no control over individuals who stand outside of these experiences; and that these states demonstrate there is more than one type of consciousness and in turn, open up the possibility of other orders of truth.

In the book, William James states that mystical experiences are a subset of the broader class of religious experiences in general. If mystical reports have been understood in this way with the aid of James, then a maximum of the Varieties could no longer, in fact, immediately follow to his knowledge of mysticism, because James’s explicit focus within the Varieties is on non-secular studies.

Unlike the modern-day tendency to limit the term ‘mystical’ to a substitute slim band of states of consciousness, James noticed that mystical studies encompass a huge and fluid spectrum of intellectual states. The class of mystical experience, according to James, is wider and more inclusive than religion. For instance, James might say that an uprush of creative perception is mystical, and that sensing a presence in a room is mystical, and that a country of altered consciousness brought on by way of capsules is also mystical, however, none of these reports could be visible by way of James as brazenly nonsecular. Conversely, he might say that very mild and diffuse nonsecular reviews, such as feelings of consolation, protection, or an increased understanding of scripture, are non-secular if the individual attributes these experiences to the impact of a trans-natural source, but they could no longer be termed as mystical by James.

However, those two essentially separate categories, at times, can and do intersect; they do so in the class of religious mysticism, an exceedingly potent subset of spiritual stories that James claims are at the root and center of spiritual experience. Therefore, while not all mystical experiences can be called nonsecular, and not all religious experiences can be considered mystical, all-powerful nonsecular studies are mystical for James.

Contrary to his detailed discussion of the 4 marks of mystical experiences being used as a definition, near the research of James’s paintings on mysticism gives us an implicit definition of mystical experience.

First, every mystical experience, in James’s sense of the term, must be experiential. That is, mystical reviews are first-hand events that are seen and felt.

Second, mystical stories are also powerful. An experience is mystical if it is intensively felt and profoundly significant.

Third, these experiences should also be transformative.

Finally, mystical reviews for James involve interpreted contacts with trans-natural realities.

James is not a reductionist. Even although he does recognize the complicated ways in which our bodies, minds, and cultural backgrounds have an impact on the very last makeup of each mystical experience, he also insists that mystical reviews are more than just an amalgam of physiological, psychological, or sociological factors. For James, mystical reports are critical sources of information on the existence of geographical regions of reality or dimensions of awareness that exceed our normal natural reality or our usual waking cognizance. The lifestyles of these unseen worlds aren’t always dogmatically affirmed by James, but he does sense that these studies are first-rate understood as a dynamic interaction of factors: a trans-natural source and a person’s interpretative framework. James claims that the phenomenology of these stories constantly shows an otherness within the experience, even if that otherness is thought of as a deeper level of one’s personal being.

For James, saintliness isn’t completely equated with mysticism. Instead, saintliness is the lasting transformation of a man or woman that is wrought by profound mystical experiences.

James stresses that mystical states of focus have the power to shape our belief-structures as they seem to provide direct, unimpeachable insights into reality which appear to be more reliable than those given to the mystic by using senses. A mystical experience feels real, even long after the revel in itself has disappeared.

Therefore, James himself, over the route of his career, slowly became greatly open-minded as to which reports are real and which aren’t. For instance, even though James, over time, from not willing to accept the claim that non-sensory mystical studies can deliver with them an experience of truth that is just as shiny and convincing as experience studies, has changed his thinking several years later.        

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